08/24/2014 09:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Week in World War I August 22-28, 1914


Russian Prisoners and Equipment Captured at the Battle of Tannenberg

The Eastern Front: Tannenberg & the Masurian Lakes

The war on the Eastern Front began with the Austrian-Hungarian invasion of Serbia in July 1914. It would progressively grow to encompass a vast geography stretching from the Baltic Sea in the west to Minsk in the east, and from St. Petersburg in the north to the Balkans and the Black Sea in the south. This was a front of almost 1,000 miles. The absence of many natural defensive features and the relative low density of troops defending it, compared with the Western Front, created a far more fluid battlefield. Front lines were often broken, creating dramatic swings in the geography controlled by both sides. Trench warfare, the mainstay of the Western Front, was never developed to any great extent in the east.

Tsar Nicholas II's Imperial Russian Army, once it had mobilized, was, on paper at least, a formidable foe. Operating under the command of the Tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Nicholas, it had at its disposal on the Eastern Front, 1.2 million men including 70 infantry and 24 cavalry divisions. It possessed an arsenal of almost 7,900 field guns, howitzers and heavy guns. The German General Staff's fear of the "Russian Steam Roller" was well placed.

The Russian Advance

The German General Staff believed that it would take Russia a minimum of six weeks to mobilize its troops. In less than three weeks, however, the Russian First Army, commanded by General Pavel Rennenkampf, and the Second Army of General Alexander Samsonov began to advance into East Prussia. With most of the German forces deployed on the Western Front, they met weak opposition. Though there was little organized defense, the advance of the two armies was slowed by the hordes of German civilians fleeing westward in their path. Schlieffen had always anticipated the possibility of a rapid Russian advance, but this advance had started earlier and was more rapid than expected.

To counter the Russian advance, General Paul von Hindenburg, hastily brought out of retirement, and General Erich Ludendorff, who had just secured Liège, were rushed to the Eastern Front. A complete corps of 25,000 men was detached from General Helmut Moltke's forces in the west and transferred by rail towards East Prussia. Two more corps would be dispatched to reinforce the Eastern Front, further reducing the strength of the German drive on Paris.

The Russian First Army had reached Konigsberg, with the Second Army to its south, when, on August 22, the now reinforced German 8th Army encircled Samsonov at Tannenberg. The German commanders, bolstered by the belief that personal animosity between the two Russian generals would prevent them from reinforcing each other, planned to attack each of them in turn.

Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff were right. Rennenkampf delayed until it was too late and, over seven days, Samsonov's army was systematically destroyed. Out of a force of 180,000 men, 60,000 were either killed or wounded, 100,000 were captured and only 10,000 escaped. No fewer than 60 trains were needed to transport captured Russian equipment back to Germany. The Battle of Tannenberg remains one of the most lopsided victories in the annals of warfare.

Ludendorff and Hindenburg now turned their attention to Rennenkampf and the Russian First Army in the region of the Masurian Lakes. Reinforced with the addition of the Guards Reserve Corps and the XI Corps, the Germans now had a numerical advantage over the Russians. Hindenburg attempted to outflank the Russian First Army, but Rennenkampf was able to withdraw back towards the Russian border, and the protection of the border forts, with most of his army intact.

The Battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes were a triumph for the German 8th Army. In the space of a month, it had destroyed the Russian Second Army, badly mauled the First Army and ejected all Russian troops from German soil. Those gains came at a price, however. The reinforcements had come at the expense of German forces in the west and their absence would be missed at the upcoming Battle of the Marne. Whether their presence there would have made a difference is a subject of endless debate among military historians.

The Germans' success in the first major battles on the Eastern Front highlighted the incompetence of much of the Russian high command. The Russian army had a relatively tiny, trained officer corps and, unlike many other armies, an inexperienced cadre of NCOs. Soldiers were conscripted at the age of twenty for six years and served a further nine in the reserves. They received little training, however. More than 60 percent of their soldiers were illiterate.

In addition, the country had, for its size, few railways and less than 5,000 miles of roads with hard surfaces. Even in good weather this could present a problem, but in the Russian winter, resupply and deployment could be incredibly slow. Though brave and tenacious, the Russian infantry often lacked adequate artillery support and was always desperately short of ammunition. In August of 1914 there were only two ambulances in the entire Russian army. Motorized transport was limited to 679 cars; most of which were reserved for the use of officers.